Saturday, April 14, 2012


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The Patagonian Hare, Claude Lanzmann, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2012, 528 pp

(A slightly altered version of this review can be found at BookBrowse)

When I was offered the opportunity to review Claude Lanzmann's memoir for BookBrowse, I jumped at the chance though I had never before heard his name. Just the fact that he was one of Simone de Beauvoir's lovers compelled my interest. Before reading The Patagonian Hare I added to my reading on Beauvoir by devouring Tete A Tete by Hazel Rowley, as well as the second volume of Beauvoir's memoirs, The Prime of Life. As readers of this blog know, I am a complete Beauvoir geek. As I write this I am still feverishly reading the third Beauvoir memoir, The Force of Circumstance. As it turns out, the story of Lanzmann in her life is covered in this third volume. Now I have read about the only man she actually lived with.

Still I was somehow innocently unaware of the formidable impact Lanzmann's memoir would have on me. Jean-Paul Sartre, some say the best-known philosopher of the 20th century, has also been called the father of Existentialism. I am not qualified to explain the tenants of Sartre, but he, Beauvoir and Claude Lanzmann took this philosophy to the page, to the bedroom, to the streets, and ultimately to the world, each in their own unique ways. Reading about the life of Claude Lanzmann in his own words was a 528-page lesson in how to be an existentialist. In fact, it was more like an infusion than a lesson.

Besides having been a brave soldier, a tireless traveler and mountain climber, a lover to many women, and a person who has lived his beliefs, he is a consummate writer. His energy and passions literally leap from the page. Never is this memoir about overcoming anything, though he suffered many sorrows and hardships. It is at once a joyous, sobering, relentless testament to Sartre's statement in Being and Nothingness: "Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does."

In approximately chronological order, Lanzmann accounts for his life, though most chapters range far into the future with the further results and outcomes of a certain adventure. This pattern was disconcerting at times though he always brought me back to where he started. Truthfully there is probably no better way to make sense of such a full and complex life. The first chapter is meant to give the raison d'etre for Lanzmann's obsessions though I did not understand how or why until the very last chapter.

Nevertheless, like any great novel, the arc of his life story plays out, from his involvement with the French Resistance during WWII while still a teenager, to finishing his degree in philosophy and finally meeting Sartre and Beauvoir, to becoming a journalist and traveling to Israel in 1952, to China and North Korea in 1958, and to Algeria in 1959 during that country's long war for independence.

The World War II years were undoubtedly the worst time in the history of the world to be Jewish, not that it has ever been easy, but Lanzmann was not raised as a practicing Jew. His passion was for freedom and for life, his abhorrence for anything that resembled oppression. It was in Israel that he found his life's true work and became a film maker, culminating in the nine and a half hour documentary Shoah, an approach to the Holocaust which explores "death itself, death rather than survival."

As part of my homework, I watched Shoah, now available on DVD. Its somber power builds, hour by hour, and is like nothing else I have read or watched about the attempted annihilation of the Jews by Hitler. The extremities connected with making the film and the controversy it unleashed take up the final chapters of Lanzmann's life story. To understand how a passion for life became an obsession with the deaths of millions of Jews but how neither passion nor obsession have ever slowed the man, you will have to take his journey with him. He is not a humble person; he apologizes for nothing. By the last page I was fine with that.

(The Patagonian Hare is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. To find it at your nearest indie bookstore, click on the cover image above.)

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